SHOULD THEPirates end their streak of 15 consecutive losing seasons—a stretch of futilitysurpassed, in any major professional sport, only by the Philadelphia Philliesfrom 1933 through '48—John Russell is certain to credit a retired owner of anOklahoma food distributorship. The new Pittsburgh manager recalls when hisfather, Jack, would send him to clean the garage as a 12-year-old. "I madeit look good on the outside," says Russell, "but when you startedpulling things away from the wall, there was dirt and grass. That's not what[my dad] wanted. He wanted it done right."
The club thatRussell inherits hasn't done much right, and it'll require hard work to cleanup the mess. A long history of poor drafts, questionable player development (anunusual number of recent high picks have flamed out because of injuries) anduninspired free-agent signings have left the Pirates lagging behind even mostof their small-market brethren.
There is newattention to detail in Pittsburgh now, and it started after last season withthe hiring of Russell, 47, who had success as a manager in the Phillies' farmsystem, and general manager Neal Huntington, 39, who spent a decade in thewell-regarded Indians front office. Though he has set the bar high("Eighty-one wins is not a goal," he says. "Eighty-one wins ismediocrity and we're in pursuit of excellence."), Huntington advocates agradual pace to Pittsburgh's rebuilding efforts. "It could have been easyto blow up [the roster]," he says, "but as we look at it, studied it,we felt like patience was the best approach."
There are somepieces worth the front office's patience. Only 25, staff ace Tom Gorzelannytook a major leap last season, winning 14 games and pitching into the sixthinning in 25 of 32 starts. But his increased workload (40 more innings than'06) may have led to fatigue in September, when the 6'2'', 220-pound lefthanderhad a 5.77 ERA.
Righthander IanSnell and lefty Paul Maholm were also reliable innings eaters, capable ofkeeping games close until the relievers took over. When the bullpen was handeda lead after the sixth inning, the Pirates finished a respectable 53--10. Thatwas due largely to imposing closer Matt Capps, a 6'2'', 245-pound righthanderwith an excellent fastball and command. After being promoted from the setuprole in June, he converted 18 of 21 save opportunities.
While theorganization has had modest success developing pitchers—Gorzelanny, Snell,Maholm and Capps are all under 27—they've had far less luck with everydayplayers, which helps explain why Pittsburgh has finished in the bottom five inthe NL in runs scored in six of the last seven seasons. During batting practiceone morning in Bradenton, Fla., second baseman Freddy Sanchez, 30, let out asigh of frustration as he watched a pitch he drove 330 feet down the leftfieldline roll around short of the fence. "That's a double," saidrightfielder Xavier Nady as he stepped into the batter's box next. "That'swhat you get paid to do.
"I, on theother hand," continued Nady, who passes for a power hitter on this club (20homers last season), "get paid to hit"—he swung, and looked up at aweak fly—"broken-bat infield pop-ups."
Later, as he satin the remodeled spring clubhouse adjacent to the remodeled training room,Sanchez was asked why he chose to re-sign (two years, $11 million) with afranchise that hasn't had a winning season since he was a freshman in highschool. "I've been here for all the losing," he answered. "I wantto be here for the winning, too."
PROJECTED ROSTER WITH 2007 STATISTICS
MANAGER JOHNRUSSELL FIRST SEASON WITH PITTSBURGH
New acquisition(R) Rookie B-T: Bats-throws
WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 62)
a modest proposal...
In his nine-yearcareer Byung-Hyun Kim (left) has been used as a starter, closer, setupspecialist and mop-up man. The sidearming South Korean has never masteredlefthanded hitters in any role, and in the last few seasons his strugglesagainst them have just about chased him out of the game. His arm angle andbreaking stuff, however, have allowed him to remain tough against righthandedhitters; he held them to a .242 batting average and .318 on-base percentageeven while being traded and released during a rough 2007. Paired with leftykiller Damaso Marte in the seventh and eighth innings, Kim—whose strikeout ratestill remains strong—could be a Jeff Nelson-style platoon reliever with asignificant amount of late-inning tactical value for new manager JohnRussell.
Double playsturned per nine innings by the Pirates last season, the highest rate in themajors. They got a boost from Paul Maholm, whose 1.47 mark was the big leagues'individual best. That many double plays, however, suggests a staff that putstoo many runners on base. Such was the case with Pittsburgh, which allowed thehighest opponents' batting average (.288) and second-highest OBP (.352) in theNL.
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JULY 3, 1967
DESPITE THEstrong arguments for American League pitching, there is little doubt that theNational League has the better quality hitters, and Roberto Clemente typifiesthem. Last week his average at one point was .368, some 40 points higher thananyone was hitting at the same date in 1966. When the players voted last weekfor the All-Star team, he led all the National League outfielders in theballoting.
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JASON POHUSKI/CAL SPORT MEDIA
RARE TREASURE The Pirates unearthed a potentially dominant closer in Capps—now if they could only develop position players.
GENE J. PUSKAR/AP (KIM)
WALTER IOOSS JR. (COVER)